March 26, 2009 / 6:25 PM / 10 years ago

Less dusty air warms Atlantic, may spur hurricanes

* N. Atlantic warming due to less sun-dimming dust

* African sandstorms could indicate hurricanes

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO, March 26 (Reuters) - A decline in sun-dimming airborne dust has caused a fast warming of the tropical North Atlantic in recent decades, according to a study that might help predict hurricanes on the other side of the ocean.

About 70 percent of the warming of the Atlantic since the early 1980s was caused by less dust, blown from Saharan sandstorms or caused by volcanic eruptions, U.S.-based scientists wrote in the journal Science.

Clouds of dust can be blown thousands of kilometres (miles) and reflect some of the sun's rays back into space.

"Since 1980 tropical North Atlantic Ocean temperatures have been rising at a rate of nearly 0.25 Celsius (0.45 F) per decade," they wrote on Thursday.

In the past, the rapid temperature rise had been blamed on factors such as global warming or shifts in ocean currents. Warmer temperatures may spur more hurricanes, which need sea surface temperatures of about 28 Celsius (82.40F) to form.

A sea temperature difference of just one Fahrenheit separated 1994, a quiet hurricane year, from a record 2005 when storms included Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison statement.

"We were surprised" by the big role of dust on Atlantic temperatures, said Ralf Bennartz, a professor at the university and a co-author of the study written with experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


In past decades "there was much more dust blowing from (Africa) onto the Atlantic and cooling the sea and ... potentially suppressing hurricane intensity," he told Reuters. No other ocean receives so much dust.

More droughts in Africa in the 1980s, for instance, meant more dust in the air, he said of the study of satellite data and climate models. Annual emissions of dust from North Africa have been estimated at between 240 million and 1.6 billion tonnes.

Bennartz said the scientists were trying to work out, for instance, if wet weather in North Africa could mean less dust and in turn point to fewer hurricanes battering the United States or Caribbean islands.

Big volcanic eruptions were El Chichon in Mexico in 1982 and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. Both dimmed the sun.

The study suggests that only 30 percent of the warming of the Atlantic can be explained by factors other than dust, for instance global warming blamed by the U.N. Climate Panel on emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

"This makes sense, because we don't really expect global warming to make the ocean (temperatures) increase that fast," said Amato Evan, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was lead author.

Bennartz said it was unclear how climate change might affect overall dust amounts blown from Africa this century. -- For Reuters latest environment blogs click on: (Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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